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How Dancing Helps My Mental Health

Dancing shoes

Today is International Dance Day, so I thought I would tell you about my experience of dancing. I know it’s probably not typical and other people will have different experiences, but I also believe that there is a lot of value in sharing personal stories.

It took me 3 years to go to modern jive classes. I know this because I was reading my 2013 journal the other day and I mentioned (several times) that I wished I didn’t feel too anxious to start modern jive. I finally went to my first class in June 2016.

I’m not a natural dancer. In fact, dancing in general and modern jive in particular involve several skills I find very difficult:

  • A degree of balance and coordination
  • Moving in time to music
  • Close contact with strangers
  • Walking into a room of people I don’t know very well
  • Letting the man lead

In fact, I would never have found the courage to go to classes without the support of my friend, Kat. Like me, she wanted to be more active and was interested in dancing. It was also a good way of meeting up on a regular basis, since the classes were roughly halfway between our homes. In the beginning, we would meet outside and walk in together. It was a great way of getting me over the first hurdle, because I didn’t want to let Kat down by not going and while I was pushing through my anxiety, I wasn’t so intimidated that I couldn’t go through with it.

After a while, I felt confident enough to go in on my own. I know the teacher, coaches and a few of the regulars better now, so I even go on my own when Kat can’t make it to class (anxiety permitting – I still get bad days). Many of my fears were never realised: everyone is friendly and nobody has told me I’m a hopeless cause. I occasionally kick people, but everyone is nice and understanding about it – they realise I have little control over my feet!

I think the fact that I find dancing so challenging is, conversely, what helps my mental health the most.

Concentrating on trying to move my limbs at the right time and in the right direction forces me to focus on the dancing. It induces mindfulness. I can’t worry about the other issues in my life, or even whether everyone in the class thinks I’m an idiot, because my attention is on dancing.

When you are terrible at something like dancing, you also notice improvements relatively quickly. This helps to boost self-esteem and shows you are capable of making progress, which gives you more confidence in other areas of your life. Dancing has shown me I’m capable of achieving my goals (even if it takes 3 years!) and encourages me to take more risks and seize more opportunities.

I still feel uncomfortable – even anxious and panicky – at times, but I know I can deal with it.

Anxiety, like many mental illnesses, fluctuates. Sometimes I can breeze through a class without feeling more than a little nervous; other times, I’m shaking and have to rush off to the toilets for respite. Having said that, I tend not to feel very anxious when learning the moves – it’s the periods between which I find most challenging. However, the important thing is I can cope.

I have skipped classes when my anxiety has been too intense, but every time I have gone to a class, I have coped. I know I have the option of leaving early, but I have never done so – just knowing the escape route is enough.

Most of all, dancing has taught me that nobody is judging me.

Nobody cares how bad I am at dancing; they can see I’m trying my best and making an effort to improve. They are also focusing on themselves, on improving their own dancing and having fun. Neither do I judge myself when I dance. It’s one of the few things I do which my perfectionist streak doesn’t try to corrupt – probably because the perfectionist in me knows I will never be close to good, let alone perfect!

This lack of self-judgement also helps my anxiety. I have no expectations, other than trying not to fall over, so there’s no reason to feel anxious about my dancing ability (or lack thereof). It’s a lesson I’m trying to apply to other aspects of my life, to try things without having high (often impossible) expectations which set me up for failure and a huge dollop of anxiety.

It also feels good to know I’m giving dancing a shot, despite the challenges involved.

It would have been easy to never go to modern jive classes. It would be easy to quit and never go back – especially after I missed several weeks due to illness. But I keep going. Dancing reminds me that it’s okay to fail, it’s okay to feel anxious and it’s okay to stumble through the routine. Trying is what counts. Trying and trying again, though I feel awkward and anxious.

And when I make mistakes, guess what? I don’t feel fall to pieces and have a panic attack. I laugh and keep trying.

 

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